How Seniors Age in Place at a SHAG Affordable Senior Apartment Community

“What keeps you up at night?” Through a series of one-on-one interviews and resident group meetings, Executive Director Jay Woolford learned just that. “I saw that as our resident population was aging, life changes were requiring more support to maintain independence,” and the looming challenge was to find a way to support them, he says. This realization caused a paradigm shift at SHAG, with the board recognizing the strategic need to evolve beyond providing affordable housing to also creating the connections to enable their residents to remain independent as they age in place.

Creating these connections is the mission of the Community Life Foundation (CLF), a nonprofit SHAG-affiliated board that started in 2012. The reason for its being a separate entity from SHAG was we saw the need to really grow it and create a specific focus, Woolford explains, and the two overarching necessities the CLF fulfills are connecting residents with community resources and increasing SHAG’s support of its residents.

Resident Services Manager for SHAG-Annie Jacobsen

How this looks at the community level is taking shape through a pilot program at The Terrace. At this downtown Seattle residence, SHAG partnered with Legacy House—a nearby community that provides assisted living services and housing to low-income seniors in the International District—to develop an educational wellness program and bring in nursing support for their residents. CLF funding created the new position of a resident service coordinator to serve as an advocate and liaison between residents and community resources. While the local Area Agencies on Aging can provide guidance on the availability of community resources, Woolford says accessing those resources requires individuals to pick up the phone and ask for help—an action many residents are reluctant to take for a variety of reasons.

During the resident interviews, Woolford observed that many residents were veterans, and he saw a real need to better support them. Using CLF funding they started a veterans outreach program that spans all SHAG communities. This program is staffed with a resident services coordinator whose sole responsibility is to assist veterans.

With CLF’s pilot programs in their second year, Woolford recognizes that they are “still in the trust-building stage.” They rely upon building managers to alert coordinators when residents are at risk of losing their apartment, whether due to hoarding practices or the inability to live safely. When a need for further support is observed, the coordinators work with the residents and match them to resources.

A holistic approach is taken when developing CLF programs because “we recognize that being active and engaged is a critical part of healthy aging,” Woolford says. At the Green River Court Apartments and Arrowhead Gardens, Enhance®Fitness programming is provided through a partnership with ProjectEnhance, a nonprofit that develops health-promotion programs for seniors. While the program requires an ongoing effort to encourage participation in the weekly exercise classes, Woolford reports seeing sustained and steady levels of attendance. A partnership with Lifelong and their Chicken Soul Brigade and Pots and Plans programs brings nutrition and cooking classes to The Terrace’s residents, while a pilot partnership with Volunteers of America creates a community-wide dining experience, expanding upon the current community potlucks that SHAG sponsors.

Another aspect of expanding CLF is developing partnerships with other nonprofit organization to facilitate connecting residents to the services needed to age in place. We are “connecting with community partners who are now elated to work with us” and actively finding organizations that are important to our residents, such as the local churches and veterans groups, says Rebecca Winn, SHAG’s communication coordinator. One of these organizations is Hopelink whose transportation services are a necessity for seniors who are unable to drive and cannot access public transit. Transportation is critical, and we are working with Hopelink to study what can be done to assist seniors, Winn says. Through CLF, SHAG acquired retired Metro commuter vans to provide transportation assistance at five communities.

Womens Making Art program at SHAG’s Courtland Place Residents participating in the Womens Making Art program at SHAG’s Courtland Place (Photo courtesy of SHAG)

Yet building partnerships extends beyond matching residents to community services, and also involves connecting SHAG residents with the neighborhood. Through SouthEast Effective Development (SEED), women at the Rainier Terrace collaborated on an art project with other women in the surrounding neighborhood. With diverse backgrounds participating in the project, translators were brought in to help facilitate, and Winn says that with the help of a translator, one of their SHAG residents—who only spoke Mandarin—could finally talk with her neighbors.

With the success of this project, Woolford wants to develop other programs so SHAG residents can become involved in activities, such as partnering with local elementary schools to create mentoring programs, but he recognizes that the challenge is not only taking the leap to test partnerships, but to overcome residents’ skepticism.

Even with resident support, Woolford views scalability and management of the partnerships as the largest obstacle. The resident services coordinator and resident life coordinator positions are essential components and their funding is provided by the CLF. Currently, CLF is funded through the annual Spokes for Folks fundraiser, but Woolford would like to diversify their funding sources—including grants—because the necessities that CLF fulfills will only increase as the number of seniors requiring assistance rises. This is “a national conversation that everyone is having,” he says, and it represents a fundamental shift of asking what senior housing is and what it means.

Andrea Watts is content writer for SeniorHomes.com, and in addition to covering senior living, she also writes on sustainable forestry and agriculture issues. Her writings have appeared in publications that include TimberWest, The Forestry Source and Acres U.S.A.